How can we make better political arguments and have better conversations to make people our allies?

Oscar Wilde once said, "In all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane." Fortunately or unfortunately this feeling rings true through most of our experiences, especially in today's politically charged environment where almost anyone with a phone and an internet connection can change the landscape of a discourse with a single post. In this highly polarised environment, opinions have solidified to form various groups that are constantly at war. It’s difficult to have friends from the opposite camp because while you may share your love for french cinema, there are some fundamental aspects that you cannot afford to disagree about. These opinions can make or break relationships.

 

For example, a close friend (let’s call her Sam) and I were having a conversation about the CAA bill that was passed in India. According to the Bill, members of the Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Zoroastrian communities who fled to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh before December 31, 2014, due religious persecution wouldn't be treated as illegal immigrants but given Indian citizenship. The bill was hailed as discriminatory in nature because it leaves out Muslims, who form 15 % of the Indian population. It also violates the secular nature of the Indian Constitution.

 

The conversation with Sam quickly turned into a fight. Her views were the absolute opposite of what I stood for and the fight escalated to a moral standoff to determine who was right. I spent a lot of time trying to convince her and I made sure my argument was air-tight. Instead, it triggered her even more to defend her stance.

 

The problem was that I knew her to be a morally good person, so I couldn’t understand why she would support a human rights violation. I ended up judging her character based on her political beliefs. 

 

But the problem with this approach is that there is no winning. Antagonising and alienating people is never useful for bringing political change because creating allies out of people on the opposite end of the political spectrum is challenging, but it isn’t impossible. 

So I started reading up on attitude formation and people’s tendency to deny cold facts that contradict their opinions. I have come a long way since then and I hope to throw some light on how we can de-escalate arguments and try having better conversations with the opposition. The various psychological studies and concepts that I came across during my research have been broken down to the best of my ability. 

 

Let’s begin by exploring the hows, whats and whys of attitude and attitude formation.

1. What are Attitudes?

1.jpg

Attitudes are an essential component of our lives that play a vital role in helping us effectively interact with our environment. Our attitudes allow us to make judgments about events, individuals, social groups and many other things. Attitudes are evaluations. That means that an attitude towards an ''object'' can be positive, negative or ambivalent. An object could be a person/ concept/ non-living thing. 

 

​Some attitudes are inherited and other attitudes are learned- mostly through direct and indirect experiences with the attitude objects. Other attitudes are learned via the media or through our interactions with friends. Some of our attitudes are shared by others (most of us like sugar, fear snakes, and are disgusted by cockroaches), whereas other attitudes—such as our preferences for different styles of music or art—are more individualized.

2. How are Attitudes formed?

Attitudes are formed from past experiences and exposure to different social groups or belief systems. 

 

  1. Direct Personal experience - Favourable or unfavourable experiences of attitude objects help one form a positive/negative attitude towards it. These are likely to affect human behaviour strongly.

  2. Classical conditioning - When a positive/negative stimulus is paired with an initially neutral attitude object, an attitude towards the object may form. Advertisers use classical conditioning to make an object look attractive and appealing which causes you to develop a positive association with this particular object, even though you had a neutral attitude towards it before. 

  3. Social Factors - Social roles and social norms can have a strong influence on attitudes. Social roles relate to how people are expected to behave in a particular role or context. Social norms involve society's rules for what behaviours are considered appropriate.

  4. Genetic determinants - Identical twins (even when raised in separate environments) show a higher correlation in their attitudes than fraternal twins, providing evidence for a genetic basis of attitudes. This is likely because of the influence of genetics on temperament and personality, which in turn influence attitudes. Attitudes that have a genetic basis appear to be more difficult to alter and exert a stronger influence on behaviour.

  5. Observation - Finally, people also learn attitudes by observing around them. When someone you admire greatly espouses a particular attitude, you are more likely to develop the same beliefs. For example, children spend a great deal of time observing the attitudes of their parents and usually begin to demonstrate similar outlooks.

3. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is believing what we already believe. Selectively using the information that reinforces your beliefs towards something. This results in a resistance attitude. Confirmation bias causes us to place more importance on evidence that echoes what we already believe. The belief that Muslim people rejoice at violence is a common myth, disseminated not just by the Indian media and politicians, but also by global leaders.

So for example, Sam holds an attitude that Muslim people are inherently violent and destructive. She thinks that Muslims are the source of every problem in the country. She will provide long lists of facts as evidence for what she believes in but will ignore the evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

4. Group Theory

2.jpg

Humans are social beings. Naturally, we all want to belong and feel accepted by other like-minded individuals. These clusters that we form are called ingroup. Ingroups could be something you are born into (caste, class, economic state) or a group that you have fought hard to belong to (an Ivy League degree, a company you are part of).​ An ingroup provides validation, acceptance, emotional safety and happiness. 

How are attitudes connected to group theory? 

Your attitude depends on the vested interest of the ingroup you are part of. If you have a lot of pride about belonging to a certain group you will try your best to maintain the attitudes that either the group rewards or sees as a consequence. The fear of abandonment frequently prevents people from disagreeing with their families, best friends, etc.​ People with high self-esteem are more likely to walk out of a group that conflicts with their value system. 

A powerful shaping factor about our social and political worlds is how they are structured by group belonging and identities. For instance, researchers have found that moral and emotional messages on contentious political topics, such as gun control and climate change, spread more rapidly within rather than between ideologically like-minded networks. This echo-chamber problem seems to be made worse by the algorithms of social media companies who send us increasingly extreme content to fit our political preferences.

 

We are also far more motivated to reason and argue to protect our own or our group’s views. This is why arguments become personal.  

5. Implicit Attitudes and Media

4.jpg

Implicit Attitude Formation: Implicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the unconscious level, are involuntarily formed and are typically unknown to us. People cannot just search their minds for these attitudes, and in trying to find them, they may be “inaccurately identified.” These thoughts, feelings or actions have an influence on behaviour that the individual may not be aware of.​

 

Implicit Attitude Formation: Implicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the unconscious level, are involuntarily formed and are typically unknown to us. People cannot just search their minds for these attitudes, and in trying to find them, they may be “inaccurately identified.” These thoughts, feelings or actions have an influence on behaviour that the individual may not be aware of.​

 

The proliferation of TV news channels and Internet news sources has deteriorated this problem further. Media outlets serve as government propaganda channels and our social media feeds are curated to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs. People don't critically analyse the information fed to them. They consume it mindlessly and an implicit attitude towards it is formed.

​Now, I know Sam and her family background - Brahmins (One of the upper Castes in India), Islamophobic, believe in the superiority of their religion. Her ingroup(family) consumes information that reinforces this attitude they hold.

 

​Attitudes are either formed through a heavy-duty thinking process (used all our brainpower) or through quick judgement (using biases/past experiences). Since a general population doesn’t focus on representation observed in mainstream media, Sam and her family subconsciously start believing that Islam is fundamentally evil. Thus an implicitly negative attitude is formed towards it. 

 

This makes her think that the CAA is an instrument to protect people like her. ​

6. Techniques of Attitude change we can apply

3.jpg

“You definitely need to know the other person as a person to want to stay engaged when things get controversial. ”

 - Boting Zhang

1. When we talk to someone or when we are trying to make a point we don't understand where they come from. We treat them as a "READER". We give them a bunch of information & we leave it up to their devices to decide how much of that information they want to use & is it going to change their mind. But when we start treating them as someone we want to "ENGAGE" with, it changes everything. We start thinking about why they have a certain perspective and how can we use that perspective to put that message across to them.

2. In exchanges about fraught topics, Zhang advises starting from the assumption that you won’t change the other person’s views, but she admits that may be easier said than done. “That balance between caring deeply, yet seeking to listen rather than change someone’s mind, is a knife-edge balance!”

3. You can strive to understand your conversation partners in ways that go beyond their views on controversial issues. Talk to them about their early years, or about the biggest personal challenge they’ve faced. Their answers may give you unexpected insight into why they behave as they do—and perhaps make it easier for you to empathize with them, and make them understand your point from their point of view.

4. Try a non-confrontational approach, asking open-ended questions or sharing your own experiences. Asking questions—and showing a genuine desire to hear and acknowledge the answers—sets a different tone that boosts the odds of a productive resolution, or at least a friendlier conversation that inspires further thought and discussion. They start to rethink and employ complex processes. Because the brain will either use a very deep thinking process to come up with what the final attitude will be or they are going to form the attitude on the biases on their brains. We want people to move from forming attitudes by biases to forming attitudes based on deep thinking. 

5. Whether you’re discussing the personal or the political, steer clear of language and behaviour that signals contempt- rolling eyes, flinging personal insults, and deploying cutting sarcasm. Psychologist John Gottman has identified this argumentative style as poisonous to close relationships, in part because it conveys a devastating message: “You, your thoughts, and your views are utterly beneath me.”

6. Typical debates, as you’ve probably discovered, aren’t all that effective—and if you start with the explicit goal of changing someone’s mind, you’re likely to get the opposite result. The reverse is also true: The less you try to force a particular set of views on someone, the freer they’ll feel to reflect honestly on what they think—and maybe even revise their thinking down the line.

7. The ingroup considers the outgroup to be homogeneous, which is ''all'' the members of the outgroup are the same. So for an ingroup they use words like "some'' and for an outgroup they use words like ''all'', for example, EVERYONE in the group will behave a certain way. So, your job is to change the "all'' to ''some'' or ''maybe some'' so that the bias that is so strong against Islamic people can be reduced just a little bit.

8. If you want someone's attitude to change, make them feel that they are in an obligatory position of power (you are the Prime minister of this imaginary country, and your attitude towards this particular object will decide how your subjects are going to live) and their attitude is going to affect a lot of people including their ingroup.

There are a few more attitude change models that I have been exploring, namely - the cognitive dissonance theory, Milton Rokeach model, Elaboration likelihood model.  

Remember, out of all this, to remain calm and cool. Hear them out, ask personal and open-ended questions. engage with them. This is the minimum we can do to change the bigoted nature of the people in our country.

Feel free to reach out for a collaboration or a conversation!

© Aishwarya Jare